After spousal introductions at conference, could debates be next?
One of the novelties of this week in British politics was seeing the Prime Minister introduced at the Labour Party Conference by his wife, Sarah Brown. In a short introductory address, she was chosen to help her husband connect with voters and to put ‘a human face on government’. I think the consensus was that she did very well in an unfamiliar role, and her decision drew plaudits from across the political spectrum, not least on Thursday’s entertaining episode of Question Time.
Many were quick to highlight this as another American interloper into British political culture. US politics has long seen the First Lady as an important political figure, and in the Clinton Administration, the East Wing took as great an interest in some legislation as the West Wing. Similarly, Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama have been key public figureheads of their husbands’ campaigns, and are amongst the most sought-after speakers at events. Both gave high profile addresses at their respective Conventions (see my Denver Diary for an account of Michelle Obama’s address).
There is no question either that UK parties are seeking to emulate the Democrats and Republicans in building well-run grassroots organisations, and many of the web-based developments that are now so central to US campaigning are beginning to be seen over here – WebCameron, YouTube channels, fundraising and activist debate on specially-run websites. In his little-covered speech to the Labour Party Conference, Jack Dromey specifically attacked the American ‘arms race’ mentality of election spending, although the record-breaking $1 billion price-tag on the 2008 election amounts to only $3.25 per citizen once every four years, or less than the US spends on chewing gum – scarcely too high a price to pay for a vibrant democracy.
With John McCain promising that, as President, he would introduce a form of scrutiny similar to Prime Minister’s Questions, the question that comes to mind is why in the UK we still avoid the sorts of Election Debates between party leaders that are such a mainstay of American politics, and indeed politics in almost every major democracy around the globe?
Last night’s debate between John McCain and Barack Obama was not thrilling political theatre, but perhaps that is to be expected. Whilst the poorly-read questions at PMQ’s are a personal bugbear of mine when compared to the rhetorical standards expected of a Congressman or District Attorney in the US, I actually think that an adversarial form of public speaking is something that is far more natural to British politicians than their American counterparts of similar rank. Whilst Cabinet ministers, party leaders and front benchers are expected to go on Question Time or face Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Candidates in the US are so sought-after by the media that interviews are an act of extreme magnanimity towards a fawning Fourth Estate, leading to the sort of soft-focus interrogations that would make John Humphreys blush. Similarly, the deference accorded to the likes of Cabinet Secretaries and Senators by television journalists is scant preparation for the Debates that have become a mainstay of the American electoral process.
I think that we are overdue this particular American import, and think it would provide a fascinating opportunity for vast swathes of the country to see the main party leaders spell out their vision for the country in prime time. We are lucky to have the great spectacle of PMQs once a week, but midday on Wednesdays is scarcely the optimal time for the public to become aware of policy positions or public character. By seeing this session reduced to barely 15 seconds of footage on the evening news, we are cheating millions of voters of the right to see their political leadership challenged on their policies and on their records.
Historically, it seems that such an idea has always been blocked by sitting Prime Ministers – a refusal to elevate the Opposition party leaders to their level. I would be tempted to suggest that, if the polls are still showing double-digit leads for the Conservatives in the first months of 2010, Gordon Brown actually has very little to lose by making his case directly to the public. A bounce such as was seen after his conference speech could make all the difference, and although he has been bested more often than not at the Dispatch Box, a formal debate is a different animal for Cameron and Clegg to tame.
If the three party leaders were brave enough to submit to the challenge, I think we would see a fascinating event. And if they ask nicely, I’m sure Our Genial Host Mike Smithson would agree to moderate it – with PB.com readers working the dials, of course!